Return of Rhythm

Among the many artists making encore appearances at this year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival is the celebrated conga player, composer, vocalist and bandleader Poncho Sanchez. Sanchez has long been a festival favorite, enthralling audiences with 
his signature blend of Latin jazz that 
mixes elements of bebop, R&B, funk and 
other genres.

Born in Laredo, Texas, in 1951, to a large Mexican-American family, Sanchez grew up in a Los Angeles suburb where he listened to straight-ahead jazz, Latin jazz and American soul. By his teen years, his musical consciousness had been solidified by the likes of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Cal Tjader, Wilson Pickett and James Brown. He taught himself to play guitar, flute, drums and timbales, but then, inspired by the conga playing of Cuban great Mongo Santamaría, he honed his skills as a percussionist and broke into the limelight at the age of 23 when he joined vibraphonist Cal Tjader’s famed Latin jazz ensemble in 1975.

Sanchez remained with Tjader until the bandleader’s death in 1982. That year, he signed with the Concord record label for his debut solo album, “Sonando,” which marked the beginning of a musical partnership spanning more than 25 years, yielding more than two dozen recordings. In addition to his numerous Grammy nominations, in 2000, Sanchez and his ensemble won a Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album for “Latin Soul.” Last year, Sanchez was honored with the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Recording Academy. The much-respected Sanchez is regarded as one of the top American percussionists working today. Among the performers with whom Sanchez has worked are Mongo Santamaría, Hugh Masekela, Clare Fischer and Tower of Power.

Sanchez’s scheduled performance with Terrance Blanchard at last year’s festival was canceled — along with many others — due to Tropical Storm Beryl. He returns with his Latin Jazz Band in support of the album “Live in Hollywood.”

Folio Weekly: You started your early music career as a multi-instrumentalist. What was it about the congas that became the impetus for your nearly lifelong association with them?

Poncho Sanchez: I got a pair of congas in the 10th grade. I’m self-taught. The thing that grabbed me was the ritmo or rhythm, the feel and sound of the conga drum, combined with the bongos, timbales, maracas and all the Latin percussion instruments. Also, the fact that I’m the youngest of 11 kids, with six sisters. They were into the first wave of the mambo that came to L.A. by way of Cuba, Miami and [New York]. That was in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and they were really into the mambo and cha-cha-cha music. I grew up listening to this music every day, and I would see them dancing to the rhythms, and would watch them groove to it all day long. … We loved this music so much. That’s what attracted me and put me in there first.

Then, I started learning about it more in depth, gaining greater understanding of what it was all about. Some of the main patterns in my music are the mambo, cha-cha-cha, guaguancó, merengé, bolero … Those are the basic Latin jazz rhythms.

F.W.: You’ve had a prolific career. To what do you attribute your consistent creative output?

P.S.: First of all, my love of Latin jazz and authentic salsa, black rhythm and blues, soul, doo-wop and bebop. I grew up listening to Wilson Pickett, James Brown, Cal Tjader, the Motown sound, I was reared on all that stuff. What keeps me going is I adapt a lot of those genres to my band, to my music and the way I live. Of course, there’s the energy and rhythm in just playing the music.

F.W.: You’ve said you learned much from your mentor, and later bandleader, Cal Tjader. What were some things he instilled in you?

P.S.: I was with him the day he died, in Manila in the Philippine Islands. He died on Cinco de Mayo, 31 years ago. I learned so much from just being around him; he was a wonderful, beautiful human being. In addition to what he taught me about music, I learned much from him about the music business, and also how to conduct myself in front of an audience, and so much more. Maybe one day I’ll write a book about it. [Laughs.] o